Making “Class” – Paris under the 2nd Empire (Part 2)

10 Dec

Part 1 here.

Louis-Napoléon caricatured by Honoré Daumier.

Louis-Napoléon caricatured by Honoré Daumier.

After the events of 1848, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, the nephew of Napoléon Bonaparte I and a one-time revolutionary who had twice tried to stage a Bonapartiste coup against Louis-Phillippe (for which he spent some time in prison and considerable time in exile), was elected as President of the Republic. He had strong support from the provinces, as well as the advantage of not having participated on either side in 1848. When he got into a stalemate with the National Assembly in 1851, he staged a coup d’état confirmed with a 92 percent “yes” plebiscite (Wright 1987), thus inaugurating the 2nd Empire.

Under Louis-Napoléon, French industry and commerce took on a recognizably modern élan: industrial production doubled between 1852 – 1870, foreign trade tripled, the use of steam power multiplied by five and the use of railways by six (Ibid.). This was largely made possible by Louis-Napoléon’s policies, which included high protective tariffs to provide a domestic enclave for growth, low taxes, non-interference in industry by government, concession and guarantees for business, and a doubling of governmental expenditure on public works (Ibid.). Given this acceleration, it is no surprise that there were, early on, some self-identified working-class groups with revolutionary principles. Communist Étienne Cabet and socialist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, for instance, were both active organizers. As early as 1848, in fact, Cabet’s newspaper Le Populaire had a circulation of more than 5000 Parisian workers, and his communist movement had a substantial following. However, rebuffed in his efforts to build solidarity with the progressive bourgeoisie, and rejecting the inevitability (or even perhaps the ontology) of class conflict, he and many followers abandoned France for America to start a small-scale commune called Icaria. In this case, there was a failure to convincingly stake out the boundaries of his purview, which it seems would be a prerequisite for solidarity and social action. Things might have turned out differently had there been an existing, clearly-defined group to which he could lash his programme.

At the time, however, there simply wasn’t a stable and distinct working class or, at least, one that recognized itself as such. Harvey notes that Paris in mid-century was France’s most important and diversified manufacturing centre; in 1866, 58 percent of its 1.8 million people depended on industry for their livelihood (against the slim 13 percent that relied on commerce). Despite this concentration, however, the conditions of life and work weren’t amenable to connection across firms or trades. In 1847, more than half of Parisian enterprises had fewer than two employees, only 11 percent had more than 10, and no more than 425 had more than 500. Over time, this fragmentation increased. Between 1848 and 1871, the clothing industry had 10 percent more enterprises but 20 percent fewer workers, and the chemical industry had 45 percent more firms but 5 percent fewer workers. Within these numerous firms, it was very often hard to distinguish between owners and workers, both because they worked closely together and thus developed sympathy for and cooperation with each other, and because of ascent (through marriage or promotion) or descent (by financial failure). Further, it is hard to distinguish between manufacture and commerce at mid-century because workshops and boutiques were often in the same building with the same owner. While this might have led to some vertical connections, based for instance on these “lower” groups’ resentment of high-level financiers and the increasing commercial monopoly, there was no clear and close enemy against whom they could consolidate. This would result in commiseration, not class consciousness.

Craft-workers, who in 1848 constituted 40 percent of the Parisian workforce, are often held to be the exception. Harvey notes that, in the first half of the 1800s, craft workers had their own hierarchies and organizations, as well as centralized labour markets, which allowed them to make coherent demands as a body and thus negotiate collectively over wages and working conditions. However, their enduring tradition of medieval fraternities, or compagnonnages, as described by Wright, involved rituals, secret meetings and rivalries. This meant they were likely an obstacle to inter-trade solidarity (and in fact their residue as late as the 20th century complicated the formation of trade unions); they certainly excluded the bulk of specialized and unskilled workers. But in the last half of the 1800s, this latter group was growing substantially and absorbing many craft-workers who had been bypassed by changing labour processes. By 1870, even their collective labour market, based on common hiring locations to which potential employers had to gingerly tread, had disappeared entirely.

As rent prices in the city soared, many large industries moved to the periphery, but in their place small specialty producers mushroomed (Harvey 2003). Rather than balancing out the effects of heavy industry’s dispersal, however, these smaller firms tended to rely on subcontracting, along with the hyper-specialization and deskilling of tasks, lowering their overhead and pushing the costs of rent and materials onto the workers. This both degraded the position of craft-workers, who no longer had a privileged place in most work-flows, but also furthered worker fragmentation and lowered wages through increased individual-level competition. (For precisely this reason, subcontracting had been outlawed during the brief period in 1848 when workers had leverage; it was quickly legalized again in 1852.)

The deskilling of labour also allowed for the use of unskilled immigrant workers from the provinces, who flooded into Paris after 1860 (Stovall 1990), as well as women and children. Worker scarcity from 1852 until the 1860s had given labourers a small degree of bargaining power regarding wages; the use of women and children offset this, and nominal wages stagnated while inflation rose. Only some workers stayed ahead of inflation, such as carpenters and mechanics, while the rest sunk into penury, thus polarizing an already fractured work-force (Harvey 2003). The privileged few were still able to take off “Saint Monday,” the informal holiday reserved for the nurturing of Sunday-excursion hangovers. The rest were working up to 14 hours a day in small sweatshops, with single men making just enough money to survive and working women having to marry just to stay afloat (Ibid.)

As Haussmann cleared away old housing in the center of the city and rents rose, workers moved away from the increasingly-consolidated rich quarters in the west – in which they had once lived under the same roofs as their employers – and into more homogenously working-class neighbourhoods closer to the periphery, generally into the north-eastern 19th and 20th and the south-eastern 13th arrondissements (Stovall 1990). The large public works projects attracted a flood of immigrants from the poorer provinces. The Parisian population was growing, but not reproducing itself (the rate of births over deaths wasn’t higher than 1 percent in any year between 1860 and 1900), and the unskilled new arrivals were amassing in the densely-populated outer quarters: against the inner arrondissements (the 1st through the 10th), which grew by 7.1 percent from 1861 to 1896, the 11th through 20th grew by 103 percent, resulting in severe overcrowding, with rates as high as 64.2, 65.5 and 66 percent for the residents of the 13th, 19th and 20th arrondissements, respectively (compared to a city-wide average of 14.9 percent) (Ibid.).

This concentration, as well as increased separation between those living at different economic levels, led to regional solidarities, as workers from different trades and traditions were brought into close proximity. This was particularly so in the neighbourhood cafes and cabarets, which became centres for political agitation and organization (Harvey 2003). However, there was little means of connecting across these regional solidarities to forge class identity based on shared interest rather than shared living quarters. Efforts to match the bourgeois mastery of space, for instance by creating a working-class, city-wide press, or voting in an independent political candidate to serve as a lightning rod for otherwise diffuse working-class energies, were quashed by Republicans (Ibid.).

This fragmentation didn’t necessarily prevent collective action, as the working class was at least minimally defined (though in negative) by pressures from above and, if not uniformly shared, at least significantly overlapping conditions of labour. Falling wages, the dismantling of welfare in favour of unstable public works projects by Georges-Eugène Haussmann (prefect of the Seine département and urban planner who overhauled the Parisian centre), repressive laws against workers’ organizations before 1867, including a law against association dating from 1852, and totalitarian surveillance all affected workers as a group (though not them exclusively). However, Harvey notes, “[If] Paris had a rather more conventional sort of proletariat in 1870 than it did in 1848, the working classes were still highly differentiated” (2003: 233). During Louis-Napoléon’s “liberal” period after 1859, though, a number of changes would open channels of solidarity between these groups, and a class consciousness seems gradually to have emerged despite this differentiation.


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